Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Wolfe was born in segregated Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1954, and he felt unwelcome at the integrated high school he attended, until he found his way to the school’s theater department. He started college at Kentucky State University but completed his degree at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he wrote his first plays. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles and taught theater to inner-city children, experiencing for the first time the diversity of people and ideas that thrives in a major city. In the late 1970’s, he moved to New York City. There, The Colored Museum opened at the Crossroads Theatre in 1986.
The Colored Museum was controversial from its opening. While many audience members were offended by the play’s edgy satire, critics generally reviewed the play favorably, admiring Wolfe’s wit and his courage in boldly pointing out ways in which both African Americans and whites were complicit in the oppression of African Americans. Many of these critics were white men, writing for important periodicals such as The New York Times, New York magazine, and The New Republic, and they praised Wolfe for the biting satire directed, in part, at them. An exchange of analyses in The Village Voice, a liberal New York newspaper, demonstrates the controversy surrounding the play: Thulani Davis, an African American critic and playwright, challenged the play as misogynist and reflective of self-hate, while critic Michael Feingold celebrated the plays’s use—and abuse—of stereotypical characters. The controversy fueled ticket sales, and the play was a commercial success, as well as the winner of the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award, presented by the Dramatist’s Guild to the best play dealing with a social, religious, or political topic.
The play itself makes reference to earlier African American literature, saluting and moving beyond such important works as Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (pr., pb. 1975), and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). In making satirical references to these and other works, The Colored Museum stakes out its own place in African American literature: indebted to earlier work, but making a deliberate break from it.